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Is the Bible Pro-Slavery?

As I seek to explain the truth, beauty, and goodness of the Christian faith to skeptics and atheists, one of the most pressing objections to Christianity I receive is: “Is the Bible pro-slavery?” The question is difficult enough in itself. But it’s further complicated by how Christians have responded to it. In some cases, the answers given are unsatisfactory and may even aggravate concerns. For example, sometimes Christians glamorize both the Bible and church history, failing to take seriously how biblical passages have been used to support sinful practices.

There’s a danger in the other direction, however: some critics impose modern, Western assumptions on the Bible, failing to read it first in its historical context. This can obscure the extent to which the reason we find some passages troubling results from the Bible’s shaping of Western civilization.

I want to make the case that the Bible has been a powerful force for human dignity, human equality, and ultimately the undermining of slavery in all its forms. To this end, I offer four theses.

1. Genesis 1 made a unique contribution to human equality through its doctrine of creation in God’s image.

Modern readers of the Bible are often scandalized to find passages about slavery. But at the outset, it’s important to keep two things in mind. First, slavery existed everywhere in the ancient world. As Gleason Archer has noted, “Slavery . . . was practiced by every ancient people of which we have any historical record. . . . [It] was as integral a part of ancient culture as commerce, taxation, or temple service.”

Second, not only did slavery exist everywhere, but it was assumed everywhere. Aristotle and Plato, for example, thought it was obvious that people aren’t equal: some people are fit to be slaves. There are a few exceptions, but for the most part, this is how premodern people thought. Slavery was often regarded like poverty—a sad but inevitable (even natural) part of life.

Slavery was often regarded like poverty—a sad but inevitable (even natural) part of life.

These two historical facts alter the conversation from the start. Concerns about slavery in the Bible come about because of certain values we hold about human dignity and equality. But these values haven’t been obvious to most human cultures. They certainly weren’t obvious in the ancient Near East.

For example, in its own historical context, the Bible’s creation account in Genesis attached far greater dignity to human beings than was common at the time. In other creation accounts in the ancient Near East, being made in the image of a deity was generally reserved only for those in royal authority. Genesis 1, by contrast, proclaimed that everyone, no matter how poor or powerless, is made in God’s image.

While we take the idea of universal human dignity for granted today, it was radical in the unfolding of ancient history. Celsus, a pagan critic of the early church, faulted Christianity for its elevated view of humanity:

The radical error in Jewish and Christian thinking is that it is anthropocentric. They said that God made all things for man, but that is not at all evident. . . . In no way is man better in God’s sight than ants and bees.

Celsus’s view isn’t so different from that of materialism today: human beings are like bugs. We possess no special value.

We might not like this notion, but it’s not easy to see why it’s wrong. Unless, of course, you believe in something like the worldview of Genesis 1.

Historian Tom Holland argues that this worldview has shaped Western civilization such that modern people intuitively find slavery unacceptable. He notes, “That all men had been created equal, and endowed with an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, were not remotely self-evident truths. . . . The truest and ultimate seedbed of the American republic . . . was the book of Genesis.”

2. The Old Testament law made significant improvements to slavery in the ancient Near East.

When we fast-forward from the biblical creation account to the post-fall world after Genesis 3, we find many of the “heroes” of the Bible had servants or slaves, and the Mosaic law provided instructions for how slavery was to be conducted in Israel. Before addressing specific laws, it’s important to note these regulations were intended for ancient Israel, not for all people in all places at all times. The Mosaic law had a built-in obsolescence. By its own testimony, it was inferior to and anticipatory of a greater law that was to come (see Jer. 31:31–34).

Thus, it’s a mistake to think of Old Testament laws as a set of timeless ideals. Some laws concerning slavery are casuistic (i.e., case laws addressing specific situations that arise). In such cases, the law doesn’t necessarily reflect approval of the behavior being regulated—any more than, say, regulations concerning gambling today necessarily entail an approval of gambling. For example, Exodus 22:1 is obviously not approving of theft: “If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it, he shall repay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.”

Even noncasuistic laws often reflect a specific historical context. For example, Jesus taught that Moses’s regulations for divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1 were allowed “because of [people’s] hardness of heart” (Matt. 19:8). By recognizing this, Jesus isn’t downplaying the authority of Scripture. He’s simply interpreting it in light of its historical milieu. The Bible contains laws that provide instruction about how to function in a particular context. Such permissive laws may reflect people’s sinfulness at that time, rather than God’s heart for all people at all times.

While we take the idea of universal human dignity for granted today, it was radical in the unfolding of ancient history.

So Old Testament regulations concerning slavery were never intended as perennial ideals—for that, we look at the pre-fall world of Genesis 1–2.

These caveats aside, however, the Old Testament laws concerning slavery were far more humane than those of the surrounding cultures. Slavery in ancient Israel wasn’t founded on racism or human theft (see Ex. 21:6) but on economic considerations. In a subsistence economy, if you couldn’t repay your debts, becoming a servant was one way to survive.

Israelites couldn’t treat slaves however they wanted (see Job 31:13–15), and they typically would’ve worked alongside their servants (rather than having servants do their work for them). While slaves were often referred to as “property,” this language didn’t reflect their absence of rights or value. In fact, Old Testament law contained provisions to protect slaves from mistreatment—more so than existed in other nations of the ancient world. For example, other ancient law codes had prohibitions against harming someone else’s slaves, but the Old Testament contained penalties for harming your own servant (Ex. 21:26–27).

As the Jewish scholar Nahum Sarna notes, “This law—the protection of slaves from maltreatment by their masters—is found nowhere else in the entire existing corpus of ancient Near Eastern legislation.” Similarly, Christopher Wright observes,

No other ancient Near Eastern law has been found that holds a master to account for the treatment of his own slaves (as distinct from injury done to the slave of another master), and the otherwise universal law regarding runaway slaves was that they must be sent back, with severe penalties for those who failed to comply.

In the latter part of that quote, Wright is referencing Israel’s unusual laws protecting runaway foreign slaves (Deut. 23:15–16). If God’s people implemented this law, they’d have become the only safe haven for runaway slaves in the world at that time.

Here’s another example: in cases where a slave is killed by his master, he is to be “avenged” (Ex. 21:20–21). The Hebrew word for “avenged” here probably refers to the death penalty. This passage isn’t saying there’s no penalty if the slave survives (we’ve already seen this isn’t the case from verses 26–27). Rather, it’s stipulating this more severe penalty is off the table since the crime in this case would likely be less. Once again, this law is more tilted to the slave’s protection than was customary at that time. Mark Meynell notes, “If found guilty, a master was to be punished, which might result in death. That was unheard of at a time when the closest legal equivalents only dealt with assault on other people’s slaves.”

Leviticus 25:44–46 allowed the Israelites to acquire foreign slaves. However, the language of “acquiring” in this passage doesn’t refer to human theft, and the basis for acquiring foreign slaves wasn’t a perception of racial or cultural superiority. Again, it was economic. If you just read a bit further, you discover the Israelites could themselves become slaves to foreigners living among them (vv. 47–48).

It’s true there were differences in how Israelite servants and foreign slaves were treated. For example, Hebrew servants were freed every seven years during the year of jubilee (Deut. 15:12–15). Foreign slaves weren’t given this protection, though they were occasionally freed. However, foreign slaves would’ve benefited from other protections, such as Sabbath rest, gleaning laws, and protection from physical harm (see Ex. 21:26–27).

While the laws given to ancient Israel aren’t a timeless ideal, they reflect God’s care for the vulnerable. Over and over, the Lord commands his people to have regard for the outsider since they themselves were sojourners in Egypt (Ex. 22:21; Lev. 19:33–34).

3. The New Testament’s proclamation of the gospel laid the foundation for the eventual undermining of slavery.

When we move to the New Testament, we encounter a different kind of slavery than the Old Testament’s economically regulated servanthood. The Roman Empire was the most extensive slave system in premodern history. A huge percentage of the Roman population were slaves. Kyle Harper notes that “the Romans created one of the few ‘genuine slave societies’ in the western experience.” Roman slavery was harsh, and the power of a master over his slave was generally absolute.

Contrary to what’s sometimes asserted, the New Testament nowhere commends slavery. When the apostle Paul lists sins, he includes “enslavers” as an example of sin condemned by the law (1 Tim. 1:10). Further, Paul never counsels that people should become or remain slaves. Rather, he encourages bondservants to avail themselves of freedom when given the opportunity (1 Cor. 7:21).

What’s present in the New Testament is instruction given to particular people who are slaves to obey their masters (Eph. 6:5; Col. 3:22; 1 Tim. 6:1–2; 1 Pet. 2:18). But we must remember what’s already been said about contextualized laws: instruction for people living under fallen structures doesn’t necessarily entail approval of those structures. Telling someone what to do in certain circumstances isn’t the same as affirming the goodness of that circumstance.

Furthermore, the New Testament shows that the gospel undermines slavery by obliterating the prejudices and assumptions that make it possible. Paul’s letter to Philemon is a good example: Paul is sending Onesimus—a runaway slave and recent convert—back to his owner, Philemon. But Paul commands Philemon to welcome him “no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother” and to “receive him as [he] would receive [Paul]” (Philem. 1:16–17).

The runaway slave now has all the dignity of an apostle. Paul is, in effect, dissolving one kind of relationship and establishing another in its place. As F. F. Bruce puts it, “What this letter does is to bring us into an atmosphere in which the institution (of slavery) could only wilt and die. . . . Formal emancipation would be but a matter of expediency, the technical confirmation of the new relationship that had already come into being.” In his instruction to Philemon, Paul provides a concrete portrait of the principle that in Christ, there’s neither slave nor free (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11).

When we embrace the gospel, our core identity changes. What’s most true of us is that we’re now in Christ. The division between a slave and the master is eclipsed in light of this greater thing they now have in common. In a fiercely hierarchical society, this was scandalous teaching. But it’s what the gospel requires.

4. The abolition of slavery in the modern world is largely indebted to Christian influence.

During the modern debates over slavery, Christians were found on both sides. And throughout church history, Christians have often accommodated themselves to the surrounding cultural position on slavery. We should be honest enough to avoid giving the impression that answering concerns about this topic is easy. The truth is that Christians have many reasons for repentance.

Still, the fact remains that when opposition to slavery first emerged in human history, it was largely a Christian impulse. In the early church, Gregory of Nyssa preached a sermon that has been called “the most scathing critique of slave-holding in all of antiquity.” What made Gregory’s condemnation of slavery unique is that he didn’t condemn just the abuses of slavery but the institution as such. The basis for his critique was that human beings are made in the image of God:

Tell me what sort of price you paid. What did you find in creation with a value corresponding to the nature of your purchase? What price did you put on rationality? For how many obols did you value the image of God? For how many coins did you sell this nature formed by God? God said: “Let us make human beings in our own image and likeness” (Gen 1.26). When we are talking about one who is in the image of God, who has dominion over the whole earth and who has been granted by God authority over everything on the earth, tell me, who is the seller and who the buyer? . . . God would not make a slave of humankind. It was God who, through his own will, called us back to freedom when we were slaves of sin. If God does not enslave a free person, then who would consider their own authority higher than God’s?

Toward the end of the 18th century, something happened that had never occurred before in human history: public opinion swung decidedly against slavery as inherently immoral. Evangelical Christians like William Wilberforce played a leading role in this reversal. Scholar Alec Ryrie concludes,

Abolitionism was a religious movement first and last. The Protestant argument against the slave trade was simple. Even if the Bible had not specifically condemned “man-stealing,” Christ’s so-called Golden Rule—“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”—could hardly justify kidnapping people, shipping them across the world in hellish conditions, and selling them into perpetual slavery. Even if you accepted slavery itself, it was almost impossible to construct a Christian defence of the slave trade, and hardly anyone tried.

Savior Who Became a Slave

While slavery in the Bible is a legitimate concern for critics of Christianity to raise, it’s also fair to ask those critics where they locate their own opposition to slavery. Why is slavery wrong? Shorn of ideas like the golden rule and creation in God’s image, what remains to ground human equality?

When opposition to slavery first emerged in human history, it was largely a Christian impulse.

In an atheistic worldview, it’s unclear what this would be. Thus, we shouldn’t be too quick to reject the Bible on the grounds that it has allowed for slavery in certain contexts. We owe much to its incremental approach. Without it, it’s hard to see how slavery would ever have come to be unthinkable—or even particularly noticeable.

Ultimately, Christianity proclaims something even more radical than the golden rule or creation in God’s image. It offers us a Savior who became a slave: Jesus (Mark 10:45).

Christianity’s message is that in the person of Jesus, God, the highest One, became the lowest servant to give his life for us (Phil. 2:7–8). If this is true, we have every reason to trust God, even if we cannot understand all his ways of working in human history. And it’s such a beautiful idea that if it has even a chance of being true, it’s worth spending our lives exploring and considering.

I’m convinced—wonder of wonders—it is true. God became our servant in Christ. Who can reject a God like that?

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